I spent the next four days feverishly scouring the combined troves of information that the Texan and Max still had access to, hoping to catch some sort of clue that might point me in the direction of either Frizzle or Gates. According to the Community’s unwritten rules, we weren’t supposed to put any effort into uncovering another member’s real identity, but we’d all treated that as more of a guideline than anything concrete. After all, anyone who wasn’t able to properly hide their internet traffic didn’t really deserve to be a part of our elite club. At least, that’s the lie I’d told myself when, on the rare occasion when nothing else needed my attention, I’d idly attempted to break through someone’s firewalls or figure out their encryption key.
Max had gone a little further in her efforts, but even she hadn’t been able to dig up anything on the remaining two members of the Community. When I’d successfully warned them all about the Mouse’s duplicity, Frizzle and Gates had quickly taken themselves offline. None of their usual sockpuppet accounts were posting on message boards; they either weren’t checking or weren’t responding to emails sent to their burner addresses; and, most tellingly, the logs of the Community’s forums and chat rooms showed that all of the programs and hacks we’d collaborated on over the years had been downloaded and then systematically eradicated.
That wouldn’t stop the Mouse, of course. He’d been involved in the creation of the most powerful and dangerous programs and, in all likelihood, had his own copies of them already stored somewhere offline. It did, however, stop Max and I from utilizing those same tools. Which was probably for the best, all things considered. If he’d helped to write the programs, the Mouse presumably knew to look for certain signature attack patterns. Any attack we launched would have to be unexpected and unpredictable.
Assuming that we could find a person, server, or internet address that was worth attacking.
Everyone else on the team, whether they were core members or simply new satellite figures we were forced to work with now, kept themselves busy while Max and I did what we could. We’d collectively concocted an excuse for Michel to spend a few days in the care of one of the Texan’s doctors. When she wasn’t with him there, Mila was either in the gym or working with the Twins to get a better idea of how much force we could bring to bear, should that become necessary.
Barrett and I communicated via text message a few days a week, now. Because I’d pulled him into the community theatre, he knew just enough to be dangerous and in danger, which meant that he deserved to know, at bare minimum, the stakes we were playing for. I suspected that he was learning more from my terse answers than I meant to tell him but, at the same time, I was very tired and frazzled. It was just easier to answer his questions, so that I could get back to the work of searching for a single digital needle in a field’s worth of haystacks.
Devlin wasn’t speaking to me. Or, more accurately, he wasn’t speaking to me except when absolutely necessary. We’d discussed some of the fine points of the rescue operation, trying to compare notes on the off chance that one of us might have uncovered a vital clue without realizing it. He’d gone out of his way to ensure that I hadn’t been hurt. But, aside from those moments when we couldn’t reasonably avoid communication…nothing. And even when we had been forced by circumstance to talk to each other, Devlin had been cold and clinical. Obviously, he was still peeved about what I’d done – which was understandable, even if I didn’t necessarily agree – but he wasn’t talking about it. The fact that he’d been stewing quietly over his anger for five entire days was unprecedented.
My parents and grandmother had graciously given me space for the better part of a week, which had to be at the outer limits of their patience. So, on the fifth day, I closed the database I’d built to help me navigate through terabytes of information and set up a lunch date with them at a barbecue restaurant that I picked at random from Yelp. Elizabeth put in a token complaint about the place, but Raymond and Virginia united to overrule her We agreed to meet there around one.
For a fleeting instant, I considered inviting Devlin to join us. That moment passed quickly, though. I had a cover to maintain. So, I called Barrett instead.
The phone rang long enough that I thought I might have missed him, before he finally answered. “Everything alright?”
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “As good as it’s going to get at least. Why do you think something has to be wrong?”
“Well, you normally only text,” Barrett pointed out. “And even then, only when it’s dark out and you need a date to get a late night drink.”
Heat blossomed in my cheeks. We’d gotten another drink since the community theater, but only once. He made a point to ask me to go out with him again and I’d turned him down. It got harder to tell him no each time, though. He didn’t push the matter, aside from the steady requests, but we both knew it was only a matter of time before I broke down and went out with him again.
“Wrong,” I said, “but not entirely. I made plans with the elder Fords today. Since you’re their favorite fake husband, and they’ve been pretty relaxed about me locking myself away, I figured we should give them something to hold them over.”
“Sounds like a date to me.”
“Check your hearing, then. This is a work outing. Keeping my parents from asking too many questions about why I’m in Dallas, what I’m doing here, and what exactly it is that you do for money is in everyone’s best interest.”
He sucked his teeth. “Are you always this charming when you’re asking people out?”
I grinned to myself, but tried to keep that from being audible in my voice. “Anytime my family’s involved, sure. I’m sending you an address. Meet me there in…two hours? We should be together when they pull up.”
“I just got out of the gym,” Barrett said. “But two hours should be long enough for me to shower and slip into something a little less comfortable. Or you could head this way earlier, assuming that you don’t already -”
I hung up the phone before he could go any further. My smile lingered for a few more seconds, though.
Now that I had an item on my agenda that didn’t involve scrolling through screen after screen of random information, the morning passed by much faster. I barely had enough time to stack up the plates from several nights’ worth of room service, take a much-needed shower, and find something suitable to wear before I needed to leave.
Instead of borrowing one of the company cars or seeking out Michel for the keys, I chose to order a car. My parent’s presence had blown any semblance of secrecy, so there was really no reason to lay low during the daytime hours. No one would pay attention to the other Ford, when the two scions of the family were in town…unless, of course, I went out of my way to dodge the media. Riding in comfort was both relaxing and practical.
That’s what I told myself, at least.
While I rode through the city, I pulled my phone from my purse and scrolled through some of the latest news stories. Rather than face another encounter with Akumi, the kidnappers had summarily turned themselves in to the authorities for some other open cases, wisely keeping our existence to themselves. Those four would be out of our hair for the foreseeable future, which was good news, but there was no way to know if the rest of the kidnappers would bow out or if they’d double down on their mission. I hoped for the former, even though all anecdotal evidence pointed towards the latter. Another bridge to cross when we absolutely had to.
No mention of the fight at the community theater hit the papers or the internet. Neither did the massacre at the dock house break through into mainstream coverage. We’d done nothing to suppress either of those stories. Someone was covering their tracks. That worked for us, in the short term. No one would be served by getting the police actively involved. But, on a longer timeline, it was discomfiting to realize that someone with enough pull to disappear that many bodies was working against us. I was sure the Lady had that kind of power, but she preferred not to actively help us. The Magi could presumably exercise that same sort of control. But could the Mouse?
And, as expected, the business pages were buzzing with rumors and speculation as to why Raymond and Elizabeth Ford had arrived in Dallas. Some stories were better sourced than others, but none of them seemed particularly close to the mark. That was easy to figure out. More than likely, my parents’ people were actively stoking rumors to drive up interest in whatever secret project my father was considering. If he was okay with the papers talking about it, the defense project couldn’t possibly be related to a weapon system or anything like that. At the same time, he wouldn’t be bothering with the media strategy for a basic corporate takeover or integration.
It was an interesting puzzle, but not an important one. Especially not now, with the timer running down before the Mouse gained access to all of my secrets. I put it aside and focused on more timely matters for the rest of the ride.
Barrett was standing outside of his hotel when the car arrived. He wore a white t-shirt that stretched across his muscles and a pair of unremarkable – albeit very well tailored – jeans, topped off by a newsboy cap. As the car slowed to a stop in front of him, he flicked away the remaining half of a cigarette and rolled his shoulders slowly.
I rolled down the window and took a second to appreciate the way his clothes fit his body before speaking. He was fully aware of my appreciation, judging from the way he shifted his shoulders back slightly and raised his chin at a slight angle. He was preening. And I couldn’t deny that it was having the desired effect.
“Waiting for anyone in particular?” I asked. “Or are you just modeling on the corner for effect?”
“Well,” Barrett said, “I was honestly hoping that a beautiful heiress would just pick me up and take me away from my Dickensian life. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone like that, would you?”
“I just might.”
I opened the door and gestured for him to join me in the back seat. He took a spot, closer to the middle than the far side of the vehicle, which put him close enough that the tips of our fingers could almost touch if I wasn’t careful.
I told the driver where we were headed and he eased back into traffic. When we’d been on the road for a few minutes, Barrett lowered his voice and hooked a thumb at the driver. “Is he…?”
I shook my head. “I needed some way to get around town that didn’t involve me constantly staring at my GPS and stalling traffic for miles. That’s all.”
Barrett nodded thoughtfully. He paused before continuing. “That project you’re working on? Have you had any progress so far?”
It wasn’t a very good code, as codes went, but the driver would need a lot more information about my illicit activities to figure out what Barrett meant. It would probably be safe to discuss the matter in vague generalities, so long as we didn’t veer into anything that would give the game away.
“Nothing noteworthy,” I said. “I know that the…general scope of the task is a helluva lot bigger than I would’ve thought possible.”
“Oh, indeed,” I confirmed. “Honestly, I’m probably looking at another few months of work, just to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.”
“Would another pair of eyes help?”
I’d considered the idea before but, with Devlin giving me the silent treatment, I didn’t want to spend that much time in any one person’s company. Still, I thought about the idea one more time before shaking my head. “I don’t think so, no. It’s just going to be a matter of brute force.”
“And the deadline? What about that?”
“It’s going to be matter of brute force,” I amended, “and dumb luck.”
One corner of Barrett’s mouth twitched minutely upward. “Do you find that you have a lot of that?”
“Not so much lately, no.” I sighed. “The work’s got to get done, though. I’ll figure it out. It isn’t the hardest problem I’ve had to deal with in the, uh, office.”
Barrett raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t ask a question or push for clarification. Even if he hadn’t put together everything – and really, how could anyone guess that my team and I were working at the behest of a mysterious woman who seemed to be everywhere at once with a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of stylish black attire? – Barrett had to know by now that my criminal career was a lot more dangerous than it had any right to be. Regular thieves were afraid of the cops or the competition. People were trying to kill us in the full light of day.
“What kind of things do you usually deal with?”
“Charities,” I said. Which was an honest answer, even if the context was a bit misleading. I had, in fact, specialized in draining the bank accounts of phony charities for quite a long time before Devlin drew me into the world of high stakes art theft. “I’ve always been very interested in giving back to the underprivileged.”
“When you say underprivileged, do you mean those poor people who can only afford one yacht or…?”
I punched him in the arm, the way Mila had taught me to throw a punch. There wasn’t enough room in the car to really work up any strength, but he did hiss in surprise and rub at the spot where my fist had connected with muscle.
“I can’t help who my parents are,” I said. “Or my grandparents, for that matter. I’m just trying to do my part to…equalize the situation, I guess.”
“And your business accomplishes that?”
I hadn’t discussed my reasons for becoming a hacker with anyone except for Devlin. It wasn’t exactly a secret. Before him, no one else had known about my proclivities, so there’d been no one to explain myself to. While we’d been working together, he’d served as the face for our operations, so none of the other thieves we’d worked with had any idea what I did with my share of the profits. And, after we’d broken up, I hadn’t been working, so I hadn’t had any thing to discuss at all.
And now, there were so many larger problems facing us that it simply never came up in conversation. I would’ve shared that information with Michel or Mila in a heartbeat, if they ever thought to ask. Max probably wouldn’t care and, after my deep dive into his archives, I wasn’t sure if the Texan already knew. Barrett was…different, though. He didn’t seem to be asking simply to fill the air; his eyes were alight with actual, genuine curiosity.
“My business does what it can,” I said. “Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, things get chewed up by the machine and it doesn’t go the way I’d like. I’ve still got to try, though.”
Barrett nodded thoughtfully to himself for several long seconds. “I’ve known a lot of people in business,” he said, speaking slowly and clearly picking each word very carefully. “And you know I’ve been working at my own brand for a while. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who got into business with the intention of helping someone else.”
I shrugged. “What can I say? I’m one of a kind.”
He looked me dead in the eyes, then let his gaze trail down from my face to my bare shoulders, my chest, and my exposed legs. Then he brought his eyes back up again.
“Yes,” he said. “You certainly are.”
My body temperature went up about ten degrees instantly and I searched for something interesting outside of the window to stare at. Still, I could feel his eyes on my back.
We didn’t say anything else to each other for the rest of the ride. When the car reached the restaurant, he hopped out first and then rushed around to open my door for me. I took his offered hand, because it would’ve been out of character not to, and allowed him to guide me around to the curb. The whole time, he stayed slightly behind me and the pressure of his gaze was undeniable.
So, on a pure instinct, I shifted my shoulders back slightly and walked a little straighter. I lengthened my stride and allowed my bare legs to peek out a little bit more with each step.
It was a bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea. But, after having so many bad ideas in the last few months that had only served to my life harder and more confusing, it felt good to enjoy at least one of them. I’d just deal with whatever consequences this particular choice brought down on me when that time came. For now…
For now, I didn’t mind giving him a little show. Because, of course, it was in character.